Sunday, April 30, 2006 | 7:18 a.m.
Nevada Test Site Quick Facts
Area: 1,375 square miles
Total atmospheric tests: 100
Total underground tests: 921
Available housing in Mercury: 1,200 beds
Number of places to buy a cold beer in Mercury: One, the Steakhouse
Length of all paved roads in Test Site: 400 miles
Length of all unpaved roads: 300 miles
Number of airstrips: Two
Number of heliports: 10
First Nevada atomic bomb test: January 1951
Last Nevada atmospheric test: July 1962
Final Nevada atomic bomb test: September 1992
Almost 60 years after the nation reveled at the sight of mushroom clouds boiling high above the Nevada desert, another blast - tiny by comparison - is again thrusting the Nevada Test Site into the public spotlight.
Some things at the site, 60 miles northwest of Las Vegas, haven't changed in those six decades. A visitor can still see the parallel wooden benches perched 10 miles above Frenchman's Flat, where politicians, military brass and scientists watched the above-ground flash and mushroom clouds from the first atomic bomb tests.
The land is still home to miles of scrub creosote and Joshua trees. The desert mountains, dry lake beds and valleys appear impervious to human activity.
Yet there have been changes at the site. Many changes.
"The one thing that has evolved over time is that the Test Site has become the world's, certainly the free world's, largest outdoor laboratory," said Troy Wade, chairman of the Nevada Test Site Historical Foundation. The size and isolation of the Test Site means that there is "zero risk to the public" for most activities, Wade said.
"Over the past few years, particularly since 9/11, other agencies with other interests have become partners with the Test Site. One of the big users at the Test Site right now is the Department of Homeland Security."
Yet despite the recent changes, work at the site is still far below the level of the glory years. Just 4,000 employees work there now, fewer than one-third as many as in the early 1970s. The last test of a nuclear device occurred 14 years ago.
The test scheduled for June 2 will be of a 700-ton conventional bomb. The research could aid in development of so-called bunker-buster weapons, including small-scale nuclear devices, according to the federal official overseeing the test, Doug Bruder, director of counter-weapons of mass destruction technology for the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.
For Las Vegas, all this talk about the bombs in the desert is familiar. The city has always had a tight relationship with the often secret and highly secure area.
The site, which includes the village of Mercury, was born out of the federal government's search for a place within the continental United States to detonate the most powerful explosives built by man.
After rejecting coastal North Carolina and other possible sites, authorities settled on a sweeping, desolate region of the southern Great Basin, with few neighbors and no large cities nearby.
President Harry Truman in December 1950 gave the order to create the Nevada Test Site, placing it under the authority of the Atomic Energy Commission.
Within a year, the government exploded a dozen atomic bombs at the site. While the U.S. military and Energy Department - the Atomic Energy Commission's direct descendant - no longer detonate nuclear weapons, nuclear research does continue.
"The Test Site always has been and will for the foreseeable future be focused on the national security mission," said Kevin Rohrer, a spokesman for the Energy Department's National Nuclear Security Administration. A central part of that security mission, he said, is maintaining and ensuring the reliability of nuclear weapons through "subcritical nuclear experiments."
"Subcritical" means that it doesn't reach the chain reaction that results in a nuclear explosion.
"We do not do nuclear testing," Kathy Carlson, manager of the Test Site, said, referring to above or below ground atomic bomb blasts. But, she said, "We are doing very small experiments, called subcritical experiments, with small amounts of material to really understand how materials react."
The experiments include testing how plutonium and uranium - the essential material for nuclear weapons - respond to a variety of environments and events. Much of the work associated with the safety and security of the bombs is done at the Test Site's Device Assembly Facility.
Rohrer noted that the government does not assemble warheads at the facility, although it "could potentially perform that function." Assembly of nuclear weapons is done at a plant outside Amarillo, Texas.
The Test Site also is home to research that doesn't involve radioactive materials. A growing amount of work involves other kinds of defense-related programs funded by the departments of Defense and Homeland Security, among others. Energy Department officials say they can't discuss all of the agencies that contract for work within the Test Site.
Carlson, however, did say that her agency now trains about 50,000 men and woman yearly on and off the Test Site to handle various emergencies, including chemical, biological and nuclear crises. The Test Site's isolation and tight security offers advantages for specialized training, she said.
It is against that backdrop that the test detonation of 700 tons of conventional explosives June 2 has sparked protest. Nevada officials have threatened to delay the blast and an environmental group has sued over air quality concerns.
Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Nev., suggested those concerns are based on the federal government's credibility with Nevada's citizens.
"The Defense Threat Reduction Agency has yet to satisfy the state of Nevada's demand for more information about this test, and it must not go forward until this obligation is satisfied," she said in a statement last week. "As a Nevadan that lived through the nuclear testing era, I have a healthy skepticism for federal officials who say there is nothing to worry about when it comes to protecting public safety or the environment."
Peggy Maze Johnson, executive director of Citizen Alert, a nonprofit group working on Test-Site and environmental issues in Nevada, said people have good reason to not trust the federal government.
"We are very skeptical of the activities on the Test Site," she said.
Johnson noted that a half-century ago, the federal government sold the bomb tests as an economic boon for Las Vegas and central Nevada. Today, the government is using similar arguments to push forward with plans to store nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain.
"At some point, we have to say, 'Wait a minute. This is nuts. We cannot keep doing this,' " Johnson said. She worries that present-day activities, including the June 2 blast, could still have environmental impacts on the region.
Wade, of the Test Site historical foundation, said the Test Site's national defense mission carries with it some risk. Wade said some of his colleagues have died from diseases that may be related to their work at the site, where he has worked for most of his life.
"I have not personally been affected, but I have had friends who have," Wade said. "If you go to the museum, you will hear me say on one of the little film clips that as a nation, we put people at risk - on site and off site. As a country, we had no choice.
"We did everything we could to minimize the risk, but we were taking risks."
For Wade, like many of those working at the Test Site today, that risk is an essential part of the national security mission.
"The world is less safe and less stable than when we were engaged in the Cold War with the Soviet Union," he said. "I'd say the mission today, it's even more important.
"By policy, this country does not test nuclear weapons, but what a lot of people don't recognize is that the defense of this country is still based on a nuclear deterrent. Safety and reliability - that's a big job.
"Regrettably, there is no way this world is going to get rid of nuclear weapons," he said. "That means the Test Site is always going to have some sort of nuclear-weapons-related mission."
Carlson, the Test Site manager, predicted that the unique conditions at the Test Site will attract more federal agencies to do testing and training.
"The Test Site is one of the few places in the country where you can do high-hazard experiments," she said. "We're very bullish on the Test Site because it is very like the Middle East."